LOST Lessons of Leadership 3: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing – Authoritarian Leadership Learns to Serve

Part 3 of series, LOST Lessons of Leadership: What ABC’s Hit Series Taught Me About Heroic Character.

Ben carefully manipulates of his followers by giving them just enough of what they want to be able to keep them under his control

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

Dr. Benjamin Linus, a wolf in sheep’s clothing

The second season of LOST introduces yet a third approach to leadership in the person of Dr. Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson). Ben is the leader of “The Others”—a second group of island inhabitants who predate the plane crash and have no intention of sharing the island with the survivors of Oceanic 815. [1]

Ben is neither a servant leader, nor an overtly authoritarian one. He is something else altogether. He is not above using the “gun” of authoritarian power to force people to do his will, but his particular talent is mastery in the art of picking up a “basin and towel” in order to manipulate followers to do his bidding.

As evidenced in the clip below, Ben is the most dangerous type of leader in the postmodern world—a pseudo servant leader. Injured, captured, and imprisoned by the crash survivors (who have no idea who he really is), the unassuming Ben seems to be in no position to lead. Yet, watch how quickly he gets under John Locke’s skin by exploiting Locke’s “need” to be seen on equal or greater footing than Jack. (Go ahead. I’ll wait while you watch it.)


LOST Season 2: Ben manipulating Locke. Follow my videos on vodpod

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The Paradox of Power

Leadership is essentially a transaction. Followers give their leaders power in exchange for service. The “paradox of power” in democratic societies is that men and women simply will not follow leaders they don’t perceive are meeting their needs.

The American political system bears testimony to this paradox. We call our elected officials “Public Servants.”  If they serve us well, we re-elect them.  If they serve us poorly, we elect others in their place.

Business practice bears this out well. Companies who serve their customers well are highly rewarded with return business and referrals.  Companies that do not meet the needs of their clients soon find themselves filing for bankruptcy.

Hollywood is painfully aware of this principle. The “best” film ever made won’t last a week in theaters if it fails to touch a chord in the hearts, minds, (or funny bones) of a significant audience.

Faith communities are subject to this paradox as well. People join churches and follow various teachers and rabbis because they sense their needs are being met.  They “vote” for their favorite spiritual leader with their attendance, their giving and, in the burgeoning religious marketplace, their buying.  Churches that truly meet the needs of their congregations grow large and prosperous.  Their pastors become famous.  Their methods and teaching become models for others.

But is this all there is to servant leadership? If so, then anyone can do it.  Just give people what they want and you’re a leader.  But are you?  Really?  Is the ability to attract a following by promising and (sometimes) delivering what people want all there is to transformational leadership? If it is, then we are in real trouble.

Authoritarian Leadership Learns to Serve

Unfortunately, the paradox of power cuts both ways. People give power for service.  A leader who fails to understand this and, therefore, fails to seek to meet the needs of his followers will soon lead only himself. However, the leader who does understand this principle can turn it to his advantage.  By selectively meeting only those needs of his followers which meet his agenda, an authoritarian can actually “lord it over” his followers by careful manipulation.

Ben maintains a dictatorial iron fist upon the “others,” by claiming to be their servant leader

This is where authoritarian leadership can most closely resemble servant leadership. Because of the paradox of power even an authoritarian leader must be wise in how she attains to her goal of gaining a position over their followers.  Machiavelli, the epitome of authoritarian leadership, put it this way:  “Men are so simple of mind, and so much dominated by their immediate needs, that a deceitful man will always find plenty who are ready to be deceived.”

Mao Tse-Tung, the father of Chinese communism, used this principle to subdue an entire nation under his iron-fisted grip. His interest in the welfare of the peasants of China was based upon managerial expediency not philosophical principle.  He boldly declared:

“To link oneself with the masses one must act in accordance with their needs and wishes… We should pay close attention to the well being of the masses, from the problems of land and labor to those of fuel and rice… We should help them to proceed from these things to an understanding of the higher tasks which we have put forward… such is the basic method of leadership.”[2]

Power Brokers

A quick study of history will reveal that nearly every dictator from Napoleon to Hitler to Hitler rose to power by mastering this principle. They doled out servant leadership in exchange for power.  Burns describes the difference this way: They learned to exploit the paradox of power to their personal advantage.  In the words of James MacGregor Burns, they are not true servant leaders, but power-brokers.

“Power-brokers …respond to their subjects’ needs and motivations only to the extent that they have to in order to fulfill their own power objectives, which remain their primary concern.  True leaders, on the other hand, emerge from, and always return to, the wants and needs of their followers.  They see their task as the recognition and mobilization of their followers’ needs.”[3]

This kind of power-brokering appears to be the true motivation behind much of the “servant leadership” in contemporary society. Tom Peters and Robert Waterman helped birth a revolution in the business book publishing industry by studying the actual practices of top corporations. One of his key findings is summed up as follows: “Almost everyone agrees, ‘people are our most important asset,’ yet almost none really live it.  The excellent companies live their commitment to people . . . They insisted on top quality.  They fawned on their customers.” [4]

Yet Peters and Waterman were unwittingly candid as to why such an approach is so effective: “We desperately need meaning in our lives and will sacrifice a great deal to institutions that will provide meaning for us.”[5] Really? So is the goal to provide meaning or to get our customers to sacrifice to buy our product?

Barber and Strauss in their book Leadership: The Dynamics of Success, are equally candid:

“Servanthood is the highest form of leadership.  It is the ideal.  It exists when the leader creates a caring environment in which those under him feel wanted and appreciated.  In this environment they can respond to his direction and reach their highest level of productivity.”[6]

Hmmm? So what motivates the supervisor’s interest in her employees needs: service or manipulation? It is difficult to discern?  What happens when meeting the real needs of employees will (at least temporarily) hurt their productivity?  Are they really interested in meeting the needs of their employees or are they merely searching for a method to get them to follow their leadership?

And what about the pastor who diligently attempts to meet the needs of his flock?Which motivates him more; building his people into a super-congregation, or building himself into a superstar?

All too often “servant leadership” boils down to little more than skillful manipulation. We invest in the needs of others only if it yields for us a return on our investment:  a return of profit, promotion and power.  Our true motive is not to serve others, but to serve ourself.  It is authoritarian leadership in servant clothing—all form but no substance.

The LOST Power of Ben

Ben carefully manipulates Juliet by giving her what she wants (but only in order to get what he really wants.)

This appears to be the secret to Ben’s unassuming power: He is wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is a master dictator skilled in the careful manipulation of his followers through giving them enough of what they want to be able to keep them under control.

Nowhere is this more evident than his recruitment of Dr. Juliet Burke (Elizabeth Mitchell). Ben lures Juliet to the island by “serving” her in the death of her estranged husband, the healing of her cancer-ridden sister, and appealing to her longing to help barren women conceive. And to what purpose? To make her his own. (To view the creepy scene, see clip link below.)

Like Dr. Benjamin Linus, the secret to so much power in Western society today is not so much genuine servant leadership seeking to meet the needs of others, but rather the careful manipulation of others through the sleight of hand of power-brokering. 

So what is the difference between power-brokering and genuine servant leadership?

 

Next post in the seriesLOST Lessons of Leadership 4: Charlie and Juliet’s Sacrifice – The Heart of Servant Leadership 

 

Previous Posts In Series:

Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Servant Leadership in an Age of Self-Promotion

Hollywood Responds to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Higher Education Responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Icons of Heroic Celebrity: TV Writer Chris Easterly on Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

The Paradox of Power: A Cure for the Cancer of Pseudo Celebrity?

LOST Lessons of Leadership 1: What ABC’s Hit Series Taught Me About Heroic Character.

LOST Lessons of Leadership 2: Jack’s Position of Power – A Study in Servant Leadership


Notes

[1] Remarkably, the role of Dr. Benjamin Linus (aka, Henry Gale) was originally intended to be short-lived and minor. However, Michael Emerson created such a creepy and compelling character (one that earned him two Emmy nominations) show writers ended up “promoting” him to be leader of the “others.”

[2] Quoted in James MacGregor Burns. Leadership. p. 10

[3] James MacGregor Burns, Leadership. p. 48

[4] Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman, In Search of Excellence. (New York:  Harper & Rowe)  p. 13,16

[5] In Search of Excellence, p. 56

[6] Cyril T. Barber and Gary H.  Strauss.  Leadership: The Dynamics of Success.  (Greenwood, SC:  Attic Press), pp. 107-108

LOST Lessons of Leadership 2: Jack’s Position of Power – Service for the Common Good

Part 2 of series, LOST Lessons of Leadership: What ABC’s Hit Series Taught Me About Heroic Character.

Instead of treating leadership like a gun to meet his own needs, Jack is using leadership as a tool to serve others

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

In contrast to the “asshole” style of leadership evidenced by Sawyer and his gun (see, LOST lesson #1), the first season of LOST open’s with a compelling story of a radically different approach: service. In perhaps the best seven-minute opening in the history of action-adventure television, Dr. Jack Shephard awakens to find himself alone and injured in a bamboo grove on a deserted island. Ignoring his own injuries, Jack rushes to the crash site and jumps into action as a servant leader. He tends to the wounded, brings a woman back from the dead, performs jungle surgery, leads the exploratory party to look for their jetliner’s transceiver, and plunges into the water to save a drowning woman. 

Despite a back story that would cause many to eschew the heroic, Jack functions not so much like a positional leader with the gun, but rather as a servant leader instead for the entire group.  

If you want to see exactly what I mean, you’ll have to sign in to ABC to watch the first ten minutes of the pilot below. (Also available on Hulu.)

The Nature of Servant Leadership

“Servant.”

“Leader.” 

Few words seem more mutually exclusive. Leaders give orders. Servants take them.  Leaders have followers. Servants have masters.  Leaders are powerful. Servants are powerless.  Everyone wants to be a leader. Everyone wants to have a servant.

But are they really so opposite? Jesus told his followers that true spiritual power comes not in seeking a position over others, but rather in a position under them.

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” -Mark 10:43-44

The ultimate test of practical leadership is the realization of intended, real change that meets people’s enduring needs.

How these words must have shocked Jesus’ disciples. They must have shook their heads to clear their ears.  Surely they could not have heard correctly.  A servant in Jesus’ day was the lowest of professions.  He performed the most menial of household tasks.  A slave was lower still.  “He had no rights at law and could demand no privileges …his money, his time, his future, his marriage were all, strictly speaking, at the disposal of his master.”[1]

But there was no mistake: Jesus selected His words very carefully. A servant is someone who lives to meet the needs of his master.  A servant leader lives for the needs of his followers.  The basis for greatness in the kingdom of God is not how many people serve you, but rather, how many people you serve.

The authoritarian leader uses people to help him gain his position of authority. The servant leader uses his position of authority to help him meet the needs of others.  “The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant–first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.”[2] The more needs he meets, the better the servant he is and, therefore, the better leader.

The Power of Servant Leadership

If we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.

This is the secret power of a servant leader:  people want to follow them. They sense that she genuinely cares about their well-being. There is something in the very nature of leadership that implies service.  True leaders, those who people follow because they want to not because they have to, always begin with and return to the needs of their followers.  As James MacGregor Burns states in his monumental work, Leadership: “The ultimate test of practical leadership is the realization of intended, real change that meets people’s enduring needs.”[3]

This is the secret to Jack’s leadership. He really isn’t trying to lead.  He is trying to serve. The group gradually gravitated to following him precisely because they realized that he was acting with their best interests in mind. When the group needs medical care, Jack is there. When they need fresh water, Jack finds it. When tensions in the group finally boil over into a fight, it is Jack who intervenes in what becomes one of the most famous speeches of the series:

It’s been six days and we’re all still waiting. Waiting for someone to come. But what if they don’t? We have to stop waiting. We need to start figuring things out. …Everyman for himself is not going to work. …Last week most of us were strangers, but we’re all here now. And God knows how long we’re going to be here. But if we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.” 

The Goal of Servant Leadership

Throughout the rest of season one (don’t get me started talking about subsequent seasons), Jack continues to cast vision for the survivor’s future by inviting them into a story of collective servanthood. He functions as what business writer Jim Collins refers to as a “Level 5 Leader.” Collins studied top companies in order to discern why some were able to grow from being “good” companies into “great,” while others faltered. Not surprisingly, servant leadership was key. In Collins words:

Level 5 leaders are differentiated from other levels of leaders in that they have a wonderful blend of personal humility combined with extraordinary professional will. They are very ambitious; but their ambition, first and foremost, is for the company’s success. [5]

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.

Like many Level 5 Leaders, Jack hasn’t sought and doesn’t even want to lead. In fact, it takes Jack more than a few episodes to even realize that he has become the group’s de facto leader.  When he insists to John Locke (Terry O’Quinn) that he can’t lead because, ”I’m not a leader!”  Locke can only reply, “Yet they treat you like one.”

And why not? Instead of treating leadership like a gun to meet his own needs, Jack is using leadership as a tool to serve others. Like Jesus, who took up the tools of a household servant—a basin and a towel—in order to wash the feet of his first followers; Jack uses his medical training and innate leadership skills to wash the wounds, and souls of the survivors of Oceanic 815.

By rejecting the path of lording it over the group and choosing to take a position under the survivors, Jack has become a true servant leader..

But is that all there is to servant leadership? If only it were so simple…

Next: LOST Lessons of Leadership 3: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Authoritarian Leaders Learn to Serve.

 

See also:

LOST Lessons of Leadership: What ABC’s Hit Series Taught Me About Heroic Character.

Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Servant Leadership in an Age of Self-Promotion

Hollywood Responds to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Higher Education Responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Icons of Heroic Celebrity: TV Writer Chris Easterly Guest Posts on Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

The Paradox of Power: A Cure for the Cancer of Pseudo Celebrity?

 


Notes

[1] Michael Green, Called to Serve (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1964), p. 19.

[2] James M. Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper & Row, 2010), p. 461.

[3] Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership:  A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness: 25th Anniversary Edition (New York:  Paulist Press, 2002),  p. 13

[4] Sarah Powell, “Taking Good to Great: An Interview with Jim Collins.”  See also, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t (New York, NY: HarperBusiness, 2001).

[5] At least for the remainder of Season 1.

LOST Lessons of Leadership: What the Island Taught Me About Heroic Character

Part of ongoing series: Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God:  Celebrity and Servant Leadership in an Age of Self Promotion.

Like all authoritarian leaders, Sawyer understood that a leadership position is often wielded very much like a gun

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Critically-acclaimed and wildly successful, culture watchers consider LOST one of the most influential TV shows of all time

I admit it. I’m a huge fan of ABC’s hit series LOST (2004-2010). My son gave me the first season DVDs as a Father’s Day gift right before I boarded a plane for a conference at Yale University. After a late night arrival, I checked into my turn-of-the-century dorm room, fired up the trusty laptop and watched the first episode…alone.  I was completely hooked from the opening slate. [1]

I was also terrified. The juxtaposition of the Island’s tropical beauty with its forlorn isolation evoked some sort of Jungian identification in my soul. The polar bear and that pilot-munching “monster” only added to my sense of disorientation. By the time the first episode ended with a THUD and that eerie theme music, I was completely creeped out.

Lost and alone in a strange dorm room in a college town, I gave LOST my highest horror-film honor—I slept with the lights on!

LOST: A Study in Leadership?

The survivors of Oceanic Airlines flight 815 find themselves on a mysterious island and in desperate need of leadership

Curiously, the most influential aspect of LOST in my own life is its unique insight into the nature of servant leadership. One of the key story lines of LOST’s first season is the tension between Jack (Matthew Fox) and Sawyer (Josh Holloway) for leadership of the small band of plane crash survivors desperately seeking to balance the twin goals of survival and rescue.

With the plane’s crew and captain missing (or killed in first episode), Jack and Sawyer step into a profound leadership vacuum with radically different approaches to leadership.

 Sawyer Got a Gun

Jack and Sawyer’s struggle for control of the band of survivors is a central plot line of season one.

To Sawyer, leadership is about getting his own way, and the means to his end is gaining control of the only advanced weapon to survive the plane crash: an air marshal’s pistol. Once Sawyer gets the gun it is only a matter of time before he begins to use it to impose his agenda and well-being as the group’s first priority.

This is the nature of all authoritarian leadership. It is a lesson that Jesus of Nazareth laid out in his understanding of leadership nearly 2,000 years ago. St Mark records an extraordinary encounter between Jesus and two of his disciples–James and John–who approach him in search of positions of authoritarian power.

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

When the ten (other disciples) heard about this, they became indignant with James and John.  Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you!”

-Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 10:35-43)

To Jesus, an authoritarian leader is someone who seeks to leads by virtue of his or her position over people–whether that position of advantage is gained by virtue of wealth, heritage, connections, talent, or luck.  To “lord it over” someone as Jesus calls it, is to attempt to subjugate them and control them.  This kind of leadership typified the Roman Empire-“the rulers of the Gentiles” in Jesus’ day.   First Century Israel was an occupied nation.  The disciples knew all too well the Roman cruelty and taxation that had already attained infamy in their excess.  By virtue of their position Roman soldiers and official could demand service from any civilian they chose.  Clearly Rome did not rule for the good of her subjects but for the glory of Caesar and his favored subjects.

Authoritarian leaders understand that a leadership position can be wielded very much like a gun

The Goal of Authoritarian Leadership

Like all authoritarian leaders, Sawyer understood that a leadership position can be wielded very much like a gun. Genuine leadership— “The skill of influencing people to work enthusiastically toward goals identified as being for the common good”– is the farthest thing from Sawyer’s mind.[2]

The authoritarian leader leads by using their position of power to force others do as she pleases. She accomplishes this by “exercising his authority over” his followers.  She has gained the upper hand by virtue of her wealth, privilege, status, or influence and uses her position as leverage against others to force them to do her bidding.  As George Mallone puts it,  “people who have spent all their energies getting to the top now let others feel the full weight of their authority . . . They are preoccupied with position.”[3]

This is clearly the aim of James and John. They reason that a dual vice-presidency in the kingdom of God is just the ticket for the ultimate power trip.  Yet their very request reveals a deep misconception of the nature of true leadership–a misconception that Jesus quickly corrects.

The Limitations of Authoritarian Leadership

Sawyer’s use of the “Gun” of authoritarian leadership quickly devolves into a power play for control

To the authoritarian leader, power and position are synonymous. Without position they have no power.  Without power, they cease to be a leader at all.  No one would follow them. When Sawyer loses control of the gun, he loses control of the group. As Dan Allender explains, “”You may obey a leader who has power and authority, but you will not strive to serve her or the cause of the organization unless you respect and care for her in addition to the ones with whom you serve.[4]

In short, as Season 1 begins, Sawyer is in the words of Stanford University professor Robert I. Sutton an “asshole”(an actual scholarly designation).  Assholes are profoundly ineffective leaders who “travel through life believing that they are inspiring effective action when, in fact, it only happens during the rare moments they actively impose themselves on underlings.”

The moment the authoritarian leader turns their back (or gun) their influence plummets.  Until then, followers “learn that their survival depends on protecting themselves from blame, humiliation, and recrimination rather than doing what is best for their organization.” Assholes are often praised for their short-term results, but their long-term impact nearly always devastates any group they lead. [5]

Sadly, such ineffective authoritarian leaders are all too common, whether in ancient Rome, a modern corporation, college, church, or synagogue… or even a tropical paradise. 


Next Post in Series:

LOST Lessons of Leadership 2 – Jack and the Position of Power: A Study in Servant Leadership

Previous Posts In Series:

Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Servant Leadership in an Age of Self-Promotion

Hollywood Responds to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Higher Education Responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

Icons of Heroic Celebrity: TV Writer Chris Easterly Guest Posts on Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God

The Paradox of Power: A Cure for the Cancer of Pseudo Celebrity?


Notes

[1] For those who missed LOST’s premise, ABC TV provides the following introduction: “LOST – Out of the blackness the first thing Jack senses is pain. With a rush comes the horrible awareness that the plane he was on tore apart in mid-air and crashed on a Pacific island. From there it’s a blur as his doctor’s instinct kicks in: people need his help. Stripped of everything, the 48 survivors scavenge what they can from the plane for their survival. A few find inner strength they never knew they had.  The band of friends, family, enemies and strangers must work together against the cruel weather and harsh terrain. But the intense howls of the mysterious creatures stalking the jungle fill them all with fear. Fortunately, thanks to the calm leadership of quick-thinking Jack and level-headed Kate, they have hope.  But even heroes have secrets, as the survivors will come to learn. From J.J. Abrams, the creator of Alias, comes an action-packed adventure that will bring out the very best and the very worst in the people who are lost.” (ABC/MARIO PEREZ

[2] James C. Hunter, The Servant: A simple story about the true essence of leadership (New York: Crown Business, 2008).

[3] George Mallone, Furnace of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL:  Inter Varsity Press, 1981), p. 82

[4] Dan B. Allender, Leading with a Limp: Turning your struggles into strengths (Colorado Springs, Colo: Waterbrook Press, 2006).

[5] Robert I. Sutton, The No Asshole Rule: Building a civilized workplace and surviving one that isn’t (New York: Warner Business Books, 2007).

Pseudo Servant Leadership and Pseudo Celebrity: Manipulating the Paradox of Power

Part of ongoing series: Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Servant Leadership in an Age of Self-Promotion.

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A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when others obey and acclaim him; worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you.

-Lao-Tzu, China, c. 550 BC

Lao Tzu first described the Paradox of Power 2500 years before Lady Gaga

“Servant.” “Leader.”  Few words in the English language seem more mutually exclusive. Leaders give orders. Servants take them.  Leaders have followers. Servants have masters.  Leaders are powerful. Servants are powerless.  Everyone wants to be a leader. Everyone wants to have a servant.

But are they really so opposite?

In his classic novel, Journey to the East, Herman Hesse tells the story of a band of travelers sojourning across the south of Europe. Their journey is sponsored by a religious order that has provided them with not only all of the necessary equipment but also a rather unobtrusive servant by the name of Leo.  The trip goes well.  They make good progress.  They become good friends.  On the road and around the fire, there seems to be magic about the group.

Then one day Leo disappears. No one is particularly concerned.  After all, he was only a servant.  Soon, however, cracks begin to appear in the fragile bond that holds the group together.  Tasks go undone.  Emotions fray.  Soon the music around the campfire is replaced by stony silence.  When no one is able to repair the damage, the group simply breaks up.  Unable to continue the journey for lack of leadership, the narrator of the story, one of the travelers, decides to join the religious order that sponsored the journey.  He returns to the order’s headquarters to begin his initiation.

There he finds Leo and discovers that their servant is actually the leader of the entire order. Upon reflection, the narrator realizes that Leo had really been their leader all along.   He was the source of the magic in their group.   Yet, if he had asserted his position as leader of the order, the group probably would have rejected him outright.  However, by seeking to meet their needs the group had willingly made him their leader without even realizing it.  By becoming their servant he had become their leader, not by position, but by influence.  Character had triumphed over authority:  service over position.[1]

This is the paradox of power that has troubled mankind since the days of Lao-Tzu. There is something in the very nature of leadership that implies service.  True leaders, those who people follow because they want to not because they have to, always begin with and return to the needs of their followers.  As James MacGregor Burns states in his monumental work, Leadership: “The ultimate test of practical leadership is the realization of intended, real change that meets people’s enduring needs.”[2]

3D films are proof that Hollywood understands the Paradox of Power: meet the customer's need for a unique in-theater experience and they'll vote for your movie with their wallet.

Leadership is essentially a transaction. Followers give their leaders power in exchange for service. We simply will not follow someone who does not meet our needs.

The American political system bears testimony to this.  We call our elected officials “Public Servants.”  If they serve us well, we re-elect them.  If they serve us poorly, we elect others in their place.

Business practice bears this out well. Companies who serve their customers well are highly rewarded with return business and referrals.  Companies that do not meet the needs of their clients soon find themselves filing for bankruptcy.

Hollywood creatives are painfully aware of this process. The best screenplay ever written won’t last a week in theatres if it fails to touch a chord in the hearts, minds, or funny bones of a significant audience.

Faith communities are subject to this paradox as well. People join churches and follow various teachers and rabbis because they sense their needs are being met.  They “vote” for their favorite spiritual leader with their attendance, their giving and (in the burgeoning religious marketplace) their buying.  Churches that truly meet the needs of their congregations grow large and prosperous.  Their pastors become famous.  Their methods and teaching become models for others.

In a celebrity-driven culture, the Tweet is becoming the most powerful voting booth on earth.

But is this all there is to servant leadership? If so, then anyone can do it.  Just give people what they want and you’re a leader.  But are you?  Really?  Is the ability to attract a following by promising and (sometimes) delivering what people want all there is to transformational leadership? If it is, then we are in real trouble.

The paradox of power is the exact process that “pseudo celebrities” currently use to manipulate public opinion for their own purposes. (See, Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God.) “The pseudo celebrity “develops their capacity for fame, not by achieving great things, but by differentiating their own personality from those of their competitors in the public arena.”[3]

Rather than serving as heroic celebrities who actually meet the needs of others through self-sacrificing service, pseudo celebrities prey upon the perception that they are meeting the needs of their followers when their real goal is to meet their own needs to sell more product, enhance their fame, etc. As I stated in the Paparazzi post, In a society hungering for close personal relationships, the pseudo celebrity system delivers pseudo-relationships with people we feel connected to but have never met.” Media outlets create the illusion of accessibility and relationship we crave, without actually delivering the goods. With enough Twitter chatter anyone can be a cultural leader.  Why bother to actually accomplish anything for my “followers”?

High-flying Bernie Madoff carefully managed the (false) image that he was serving his clients

Best-selling business author Jim Collins warns that this pseudo celebrity approach to leadership is a cancerous growth on the future of transformative leadership in America, from the pulpit to the boardroom. Pseudo celebrities are not only “famous for being famous,” they are paid for being famous, and revered for being famous regardless of their providing any actual value to the lives of others or the organizations they lead. They score “covers of magazines, bestselling autobiographies, massive compensation packages—despite the fact that their long-term results failed to measure up.”

Collins prophecies: “If we allow the celebrity rock-star model of leadership to triumph, we will see the decline of corporations and institutions of all types… These leaders were ambitious for themselves, and they succeeded admirably on this score, but they failed utterly in the task of creating an enduring great company. Smart people instinctively understand the dangers of entrusting our future to self-serving leaders who use our institutions… whether in the corporate or social sectors… to advance their own interests.”[4]

Jim Collins: "If we allow the celebrity rock-star model of leadership to triumph, we will see the decline of corporations and institutions of all types."

But are we really so smart? The rampant tragic decline of American business, banking, government, education, church and media enterprises stems largely from the ascendancy of self-centered pseudo celebrity leaders. Like Israel during the reign of Saul, self-centered leadership wears the crown, while Davidic servant leadership is banished from the halls of power.

Can we learn to discern the difference between pseudo celebrity leadership and heroic servant leadership? I believe we can. In fact, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth provides both clear teaching regarding servant leadership and a compelling example of living it out.

Continue reading next post in series: LOST Lessons of Servant Leadership

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Notes


[1] I am deeply indebted to the late Robert Greenleaf for not only helping me reassess my high school hatred of Herman Hesse, but also for providing the foundation of my overall understanding of how servant leadership functions in the business world. See, Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant leadership: a journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness (New York: Paulist Press, 1977). See also, Don M. Frick, Robert K. Greenleaf: a life of servant leadership (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2004); Larry C. Spears, Reflections on leadership: how Robert K. Greenleaf’s theory of Servant-leadership influenced today’s top management thinkers (New York: J. Wiley, 1995); Mark A. Wells, Servant leadership: a theological analysis of Robert K. Greenleaf’s concept of human transformation (PhD Thesis: Baylor University, 2004).
[2] James MacGregor Burns,  Leadership (New York:  Harper and Row, 1978), p. 461.
[3] Chris Rojek, Celebrity: Critical Concepts in Sociology (London, UK: Routledge, 2010), 16, 52.
[4] Jim Collins, “The Misguided Mix-up of Celebrity and Leadership.” http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/the-misguided-mixup.html

The Paradox of Power: A Cure for the Cancer of Pseudo Celebrity?

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when others obey and acclaim him; worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you.

-Lao-Tzu, China, c. 550 BC

Lao Tzu first described the Paradox of Power 2500 years before Lady Gaga

“Servant.” “Leader.”  Few words in the English language seem more mutually exclusive. Leaders give orders. Servants take them.  Leaders have followers. Servants have masters.  Leaders are powerful. Servants are powerless.  Everyone wants to be a leader. Everyone wants to have a servant.

But are they really so opposite?

In his classic novel, Journey to the East, Herman Hesse tells the story of a band of travelers sojourning across the south of Europe. Their journey is sponsored by a religious order that has provided them with not only all of the necessary equipment but also a rather unobtrusive servant by the name of Leo.  The trip goes well.  They make good progress.  They become good friends.  On the road and around the fire, there seems to be magic about the group.

Then one day Leo disappears. No one is particularly concerned.  After all, he was only a servant.  Soon, however, cracks begin to appear in the fragile bond that holds the group together.  Tasks go undone.  Emotions fray.  Soon the music around the campfire is replaced by stony silence.  When no one is able to repair the damage, the group simply breaks up.  Unable to continue the journey for lack of leadership, the narrator of the story, one of the travelers, decides to join the religious order that sponsored the journey.  He returns to the order’s headquarters to begin his initiation.

There he finds Leo and discovers that their servant is actually the leader of the entire order. Upon reflection, the narrator realizes that Leo had really been their leader all along.   He was the source of the magic in their group.   Yet, if he had asserted his position as leader of the order, the group probably would have rejected him outright.  However, by seeking to meet their needs the group had willingly made him their leader without even realizing it.  By becoming their servant he had become their leader, not by position, but by influence.  Character had triumphed over authority:  service over position.[1]

This is the paradox of power that has troubled mankind since the days of Lao-Tzu. There is something in the very nature of leadership that implies service.  True leaders, those who people follow because they want to not because they have to, always begin with and return to the needs of their followers.  As James MacGregor Burns states in his monumental work, Leadership: “The ultimate test of practical leadership is the realization of intended, real change that meets people’s enduring needs.”[2]

3D films are proof that Hollywood understands the Paradox of Power: meet the customer's need for a unique in-theater experience and they'll vote for your movie with their wallet.

Leadership is essentially a transaction. Followers give their leaders power in exchange for service. We simply will not follow someone who does not meet our needs.

The American political system bears testimony to this.  We call our elected officials “Public Servants.”  If they serve us well, we re-elect them.  If they serve us poorly, we elect others in their place.

Business practice bears this out well. Companies who serve their customers well are highly rewarded with return business and referrals.  Companies that do not meet the needs of their clients soon find themselves filing for bankruptcy.

Hollywood creatives are painfully aware of this process. The best screenplay ever written won’t last a week in theatres if it fails to touch a chord in the hearts, minds, or funny bones of a significant audience.

Faith communities are subject to this paradox as well. People join churches and follow various teachers and rabbis because they sense their needs are being met.  They “vote” for their favorite spiritual leader with their attendance, their giving and (in the burgeoning religious marketplace) their buying.  Churches that truly meet the needs of their congregations grow large and prosperous.  Their pastors become famous.  Their methods and teaching become models for others.

In a celebrity-driven culture, the Tweet is becoming the most powerful voting booth on earth.

But is this all there is to servant leadership? If so, then anyone can do it.  Just give people what they want and you’re a leader.  But are you?  Really?  Is the ability to attract a following by promising and (sometimes) delivering what people want all there is to transformational leadership? If it is, then we are in real trouble.

The paradox of power is the exact process that “pseudo celebrities” currently use to manipulate public opinion for their own purposes. (See, Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God.) “The pseudo celebrity “develops their capacity for fame, not by achieving great things, but by differentiating their own personality from those of their competitors in the public arena.”[3] Rather than serving as heroic celebrities who actually meet the needs of others through self-sacrificing service, pseudo celebrities prey upon the perception that they are meeting the needs of their followers when their real goal is to meet their own needs to sell more product, enhance their fame, etc. As I stated in the Paparazzi post, In a society hungering for close personal relationships, the pseudo celebrity system delivers pseudo-relationships with people we feel connected to but have never met.” Media outlets create the illusion of accessibility and relationship we crave, without actually delivering the goods. With enough Twitter chatter anyone can be a cultural leader.  Why bother to actually accomplish anything for my “followers”?

High-flying Bernie Madoff carefully managed the (false) image that he was serving his clients

Best-selling business author Jim Collins warns that this pseudo celebrity approach to leadership is a cancerous growth on the future of transformative leadership in America, from the pulpit to the boardroom. Pseudo celebrities are not only “famous for being famous,” they are paid for being famous, and revered for being famous regardless of their providing any actual value to the lives of others or the organizations they lead. They score “covers of magazines, bestselling autobiographies, massive compensation packages—despite the fact that their long-term results failed to measure up.”

Collins prophecies: “If we allow the celebrity rock-star model of leadership to triumph, we will see the decline of corporations and institutions of all types… These leaders were ambitious for themselves, and they succeeded admirably on this score, but they failed utterly in the task of creating an enduring great company. Smart people instinctively understand the dangers of entrusting our future to self-serving leaders who use our institutions… whether in the corporate or social sectors… to advance their own interests.”[4]

Jim Collins: "If we allow the celebrity rock-star model of leadership to triumph, we will see the decline of corporations and institutions of all types."

But are we really so smart? The rampant tragic decline of American business, banking, government, education, church and media enterprises stems largely from the ascendancy of self-centered pseudo celebrity leaders. Like Israel during the reign of Saul, self-centered leadership wears the crown, while Davidic servant leadership is banished from the halls of power.

Can we learn to discern the difference between pseudo celebrity leadership and heroic servant leadership? I believe we can. In fact, I believe that Jesus of Nazareth provides both clear teaching regarding servant leadership and a compelling example of living it out.

Continue reading next post in series: LOST Lessons of Servant Leadership

.

Notes


[1] I am deeply indebted to the late Robert Greenleaf for not only helping me reassess my high school hatred of Herman Hesse, but also for providing the foundation of my overall understanding of how servant leadership functions in the business world. See, Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant leadership: a journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness (New York: Paulist Press, 1977). See also, Don M. Frick, Robert K. Greenleaf: a life of servant leadership (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2004); Larry C. Spears, Reflections on leadership: how Robert K. Greenleaf’s theory of Servant-leadership influenced today’s top management thinkers (New York: J. Wiley, 1995); Mark A. Wells, Servant leadership: a theological analysis of Robert K. Greenleaf’s concept of human transformation (PhD Thesis: Baylor University, 2004).
[2] James MacGregor Burns,  Leadership (New York:  Harper and Row, 1978), p. 461.
[3] Chris Rojek, Celebrity: Critical Concepts in Sociology (London, UK: Routledge, 2010), 16, 52.
[4] Jim Collins, “The Misguided Mix-up of Celebrity and Leadership.” http://www.jimcollins.com/article_topics/articles/the-misguided-mixup.html